Danny Wilson is a Royal Society Sir Henry Dale Fellow at the Nuffield Department of Medicine in Oxford where he investigates analysis and treatment of infectious diseases. He tells us about the development of the ‘Resistance is futile’ fairground stall, a public engagement initiative which aims to highlight the problem of antibiotic resistance.
What did you do?
We were delighted to have the opportunity to present our research at the Royal Society’s ‘Next Big Thing’ Science Museum Lates evening in London. My group is part of the Modernising Medical Microbiology consortium and based at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital, where we have a lot of enthusiastic scientists passionate about communicating their work to a wider audience. Much of our work centres on a few key research questions: how can we use DNA to track disease transmission, identify drug-resistant superbugs and find genes that make bacteria more dangerous? To publicise these ideas, we developed the ‘Resistance is Futile’ fairground stall.
We got involved by responding to one of the Royal Society’s calls for applications to participate in their Science Museum Lates. We wanted to explain the problem of antibiotic resistance and communicate our research which aims to help diagnose resistant bacteria more quickly, track spread and find disease-risk genes by reading their DNA sequences.
What types of activities did you have?
The stall features an Antibiotic Resistance Coconut Shy, Dance Dance Evolution Dance Mat and Phil Fowler’s Bash the Bug Zooniverse Game (http://bit.ly/bashthebug) The aim of the Antibiotic Resistance Coconut Shy is to show how overuse of antibiotics in society creates an evolutionary selection pressure that favours the rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Some coconuts, representing resistant bacteria, are harder to knock off with the antibiotic beanbags than other coconuts, which represent sensitive bacteria. After throwing the beanbags (using the antibiotics), the relative frequency of the hard-to-knock-off, antibiotic-resistant coconuts tends to rise, because they were left while the other, sensitive coconuts were knocked off (killed).
The Dance Dance Evolution Dance Mat, created by Gareth Jenkin-Jones, shows how genetic differences arise between bacteria, which we use for tracking their spread. The aim of the game is to copy a DNA sequence as faithfully as possible using the dance mat: instead of the usual up/down/left/right dance moves, we replaced them with A/C/G/T. Like mutations that occur when DNA is copied during bacterial replication, missteps in copying the dance mat sequence are inevitable sooner or later. In our research, we use these unique mutations to identify closely related infections that represent recent spread from patient-to-patient.
The Bash the Bug Game is a citizen science project aimed at recruiting thousands of volunteers from across the internet to help identify antibiotic resistant bugs. Because the human eye is often better at discriminating images than computers, volunteers help to classify miniature plastic tubes as showing bacterial growth or not, across a range of antibiotic exposures. This allows us to more accurately quantify antibiotic resistance in large numbers of bacterial strains, which we can then use to help find new genes in the bugs that promote drug resistance.
What was the experience like?
The evening was fun, very busy with a great reception. The coconut shy is a good ice breaker to get people talking about the science behind it. In between talking to visitors to the stall there was opportunity to visit stalls from many other researchers covering lots of interesting themes.
I think there are a lot of benefits from taking part, beyond communicating scientific ideas and the purpose of our research. It is challenging to explain scientific research to a general audience, but it gets easier with practice, so these opportunities are valuable. Concisely explaining difficult concepts is vital not only for public engagement, but also in grant applications and writing accessible papers. The process of planning what we hoped would be an interesting and fun event helped really clarify where our research fits into the big picture, and that is important for identifying priorities for future work.
What advice would you give to other research fellows?
I think one of the things that worked well for us was to make the activities fun, even a bit silly, completely irrespective of the science, and then trying to weave the story we wanted to tell into that.
Putting together an enthusiastic team was the most important part of coming up with fun ideas that would draw people in, communicating the scientific message and running the event on the night. There are lots of opportunities for public engagement – we’ve also participated in the Cheltenham and Oxfordshire Science festivals for example – and having put together a collection of activities, we can reuse them at other events, which means the time and energy that goes into planning can have benefits beyond the one event.